Poison Pen Out of Ink: Travis Armstrong, Santa Barbara News-Press editorial page editor and arguably the most hated man in town, is gone from the powerful post he abused for so long. Thousands cheer.
The word I get is that owner Wendy McCaw called her editorial hatchet man onto the carpet Friday afternoon, October 30. She apparently asked why, on the eve of Tuesday’s election, he hasn’t been firing off his usual red-meat editorials, attacking the bad guys on her voluminous enemies list and praising her favorites.
Enough, Wendy reportedly was saying, about bobcats and wolves for now, and why was he slacking off on fiery editorials, and, by the way, taking too much time off? At which point, from what I hear, Travis said it sounded like a good time to move to Palm Springs with his partner.
Things happen fast at the News-Press on Friday afternoons, when bad news is often passed out. Whether Yolanda (“Angel of Death’) Apodaca of Inhuman Resources perp-walked him out of the building, as Travis did to former executive editor Jerry Roberts before the entire newsroom on July 6, 2006, isn’t known. Half the staff present yelled “Fuck you, Travis” as he marched Roberts off.
Travis was at the heart of the News-Press meltdown that started that day, when Roberts, other top editors, and I, quit. Things had been brewing for some time. McCaw and Roberts had not been speaking for months. Then publisher Joe Cole, seen as a rational buffer between McCaw and the newsroom, left for reasons never made clear. The paper said Cole, by no means of retirement age, “retired.” The buffer gone, things soon went to pot.
The spark that set it all off had come when the paper published a routine planning hearing story about actor Rob Lowe’s proposed Montecito home, listing the address. Lowe complained and McCaw, friendly with Lowe, wrote letters of reprimand to the reporter involved and to several editors, one of whom had not even handled the story. One editor was suspended and soon quit.
About the same time, Travis was infuriated by the publication of a long story about his drunk driving arrest. A story also appeared about his refusal to permit Mayor Marty Blum to appear on his radio show. Then, while Roberts was on vacation in early July 2006, McCaw put Travis in charge of the newsroom, thereby committing the journalistic sin of mixing the opinion side of the paper with news. The two are traditionally separated by an ethical wall. Particularly in view of Travis’s vitriolic editorials, which alienated the community, the fact that he was now charge of news shocked the staff. Roberts handed in his resignation the day he returned.
Since then about 100 people have quit or been fired for union activity – illegally fired, according to a judge’s decision. McCaw has spent millions battling the newsroom unionization brought on by her own behavior that fateful summer of discontent. Reporters and others felt they needed a union to help protect them against what they considered a tyrannical, capricious owner. The paper is now a hollow husk of what it was then, not only an instrument of McCaw’s libertarian-style ideology but a vehicle of vengeance against anyone on whom she fixes an angry eye.
Travis, who assailed without mercy anyone on owner Wendy McCaw’s lengthy enemies list, can’t be blamed if he was burned out by years of high pressure – running the editorial pages, plowing into controversies or creating them while working for perhaps the most demanding boss in town. To his credit, Travis was passionate and fearless about tackling such subjects as high salaries for public officials. But he tended to personalize issues, attacking people rather than causes.
Travis’s future remains unclear. Can he ever get another job in journalism? Does he just want to settle down quietly in gay-friendly Palm Springs? Wrote blogger Craig Smith, “My information is that he and his longtime partner, Greg Gauthier, have purchased a home in the Palm Springs area and are relocating there.”
Was he pushed out, some speculate, in part because his hefty salary of an estimated $100,000 or more was too much for the paper to sustain in light of falling circulation? Virtually every time new bad news is reported on the circulation front, heads roll at the News-Press. Earlier this week, it was reported that daily circulation had dropped to 27,576, down from 32,534 a year ago, itself far below the level when McCaw bought the paper in 2000. Most other U.S. dailies have also lost readers.
Frankly, it’s hard for me to imagine that no matter how many people quit the paper, McCaw would let go of the man who faithfully carried out her iron will on the editorial pages, a trusted right-hand man who lavished unceasing vitriol on the likes of Mayor Blum, Congressmember Lois Capps, former Assemblymember Hannah-Beth Jackson, and City Councilmember Helene Schneider-all women, by the way.
There were other targets, countless more, and it was rare for any of them to be allowed to reply in print to Travis’s assaults, attacks that were repeated again and again, often on trivial matters somehow elevated by the magic of a poison pen to ethical heights.
Few if any other newspapers would have tolerated such a dark crusade, which caused so many Santa Barbarans to quit reading, wrecked the paper’s credibility, and hurt its bottom line. But McCaw is the queen of that end of De la Guerra Plaza and Travis was her knight wielding a bloody sword.
In my half-century-plus in journalism I’ve never seen the likes of what the News-Press has become, rivaled only by the Colonel McCormick-era at the Chicago Tribune and pre-Otis Chandler’s Los Angeles Times. Travis Armstrong may be gone but he will not be soon forgotten.
Barney Brantingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (805) 965-5205. He writes online columns in addition to a print column for Thursdays.